BANGKOK – Thailand's prime minister said Monday she is willing to do anything it takes to end violent protests against her government and restore peace, but cannot accept the opposition's "unconstitutional" demand to hand power to an unelected council.
Yingluck Shinawatra's comments, broadcast in a televised news conference, highlighted the unusual political deadlock Thailand finds itself in with no clear solution in sight even as violence on the streets continues to rise.
As Yingluck spoke from the heavily guarded national police headquarters, street battles between protesters and police that started over the weekend intensified. Protesters commandeered garbage trucks and bulldozers and tried to ram concrete barriers at Government House and other key offices. Police struggled to repel them by firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, as protesters shot back explosives from homemade rocket launchers
The protests aimed at toppling Yingluck's government have renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia's biggest economies and comes just ahead of the peak holiday tourist season.
At least three people were killed and more than 200 injured in the past three days of violence, which capped a week of massive street rallies that drew crowds of more than 100,000 at their peak.
"If there's anything I can do to bring peace back to the Thai people I am happy to do it," Yingluck said, striking a conciliatory but firm tone. "The government is more than willing to have talks, but I myself cannot see a way out of this problem that is within the law and in the constitution."
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who met with Yingluck on Sunday night, has said he will not be satisfied with Yingluck's resignation or new elections. Instead, he wants an unelected "people's council" to pick a new prime minister who would replace Yingluck, even though she was elected with an overwhelming majority. His demand has been criticized by many as undemocratic.
"I don't know how we can proceed" with Suthep's demand, she said. "We don't know how to make it happen. Right now we don't see any way to resolve the problem under the constitution," she said in the brief 12-minute news conference.
She cited Suthep's repeated statements that he won't be satisfied even if she steps down to end the deadlock, and implied that she was willing to hold fresh elections if that helps.
"I am not against either resignation or dissolution of parliament if this solution will stop the protests," she said. "The government is not trying to cling to power."
The protesters, who are mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, accuse Yingluck of being a proxy for her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was deposed in a 2006 military coup but remains central to Thailand's political crisis, and is a focal point for the protester's hatred.
The protesters, who call themselves the People's Democratic Reform Committee, say their goal is to uproot the political machine of Thaksin, who is accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power.
Monday's violence took place around key institutions -- the Government House, the Parliament and Metropolitan Police Headquarters in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok's main tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple, the Bangkok zoo, and the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Most of Bangkok, a city of 10 million, has been unaffected.
Analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told The Associated Press that while Suthep's demands may appear "bold and blatant," they go down well with the people ... who think that the electoral system can never be trusted and therefore they have to set up their own government and rewrite the rules."
The protesters' numbers have dwindled from a peak of 100,000-plus a week ago but hardcore groups have remained at the frontline, fighting running battles with the police.
On Monday, many schools and offices, including the United Nations' regional headquarters located near the Government House, were closed.
The French Embassy issued one of the strongest warnings of dozens of foreign governments, urging citizens to "stay inside" to avoid the conflict on Bangkok's streets.
The French School was one of at least 60 schools closed in Bangkok on Monday. It is located in a northeastern Bangkok neighborhood where gunshots rang out over the weekend during clashes between Yingluck's supporters and opponents.
Suthep's meeting with Yingluck on Sunday took place in the presence of top military leaders, even though he had an arrest warrant against him. A second arrest warrant was issued Monday on charges of insurrection. His sustained campaign has raised suggestions that he may have the backing of the military, which has long had a powerful influence over Thai politics. The army has often stepped in during times of crisis, carrying out 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s.
But this time, if the army does anything, "it will be with great hesitation" because it would have no support internationally and would find it tough to install a new civilian government acceptable to all, said Thitinan, director of Chulalongkorn's Institute of Security and International Studies.
"So this is something the army wants to avoid. It has stayed on the sidelines for now. And if it does (act), I think we can look at more turmoil down the road, I am afraid," he said.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Thaksin, who remains hugely popular among rural voters, in 2006. Two years later, anti-Thaksin protesters occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister's office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
"I believe that no one wants to see a repeat of history, where we saw the people suffer and lose their lives," Yingluck said.